I’ll be seeing it again later this week, but after a couple of days to process it, I think I’m ready to write something about The Last Jedi (though my memory on details may be a tad fuzzy.)
Fair warning! There will be spoilers. Read at your own risk.
First, to get this out of the way: I loved it. I didn’t have quite the sense of happy surprise I did with The Force Awakens, which is to be expected for a sequel. It also, as many reviewers have noted, has a different tone and pacing to many of the stories that have gone before it. I suspect that may be part of the reason some people didn’t like it so much. There were also some of the usual continuity and plausibility errors, but that’s par for the course for all of these films, so, eh.
There are also, however, some people who have decided to make it a personal crusade to rage on this movie, with a concerted effort to game its audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDB. Interestingly, some of this seems to have been taken up by the conservative bot army on Twitter, too. It’s really odd to see a generic MAGA account purportedly run by a Midwestern retiree suddenly switch from fapping over Trump to ostensible movie criticism. This sort of thing would be expected from the mass of 4chan-spawned racist fanboy/G*mergate dipshits who have now included fetishizing Nazis with their “I’m so oppressed” whining, but having it carry over outside of those circles and into the Russian-bot army is weird. Not sure what the endgame for this particular round of automated trolling is supposed to be, or whether it’s just that since one region of the asshat Twitsphere was going off about it, the bots picked up on it.
At any rate, it’s unsurprising that The Last Jedi is getting the same sort of rageflailing from this crowd as every other blockbuster that has dared to include people other than white dudes among its heroes. Seems that when you get more non-white-dude characters beyond a token Black guy (usually the team’s “muscle”), and a pretty girl who exists primarily as a quest reward for the hero, some folks think they’re now an endangered species. Had to laugh when I got called a racist and sexist on Facebook for noting that, given the massive box office these movies have gotten, the rest of us seem to be happy with the diversity. Indeed, white dudes being only 80% of characters in tentpole blockbusters, rather than 90%, is clearly evidence of impending genocide.
Which leads me to a more-detailed take on this particular one. Spoilers ahoy!
One of the key plot points for TLJ is Kylo’s ostensible redemption arc. At first, I found the whole thing eyeroll-inducing, if not surprising. Star Wars, after all, wants us to believe that a man who blithely committed mass murder on an enormous scale can kill one bad guy and then come back as a friendly Force ghost. Yeah, no. Anakin is, was, and always will be a giant tool. Given that Kylo is deliberately walking in his murderous grandfather’s footsteps and trying to make them bigger–“You blew up a planet? Hold my Corellian beer and watch this!”–it’s equally tedious, if not more so, to try to redeem him. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good redemption arc. Boromir FTW! But people who slaughter innocents on a whim are never going to be actual good guys. Stahp.
To my delight, however, TLJ turns this on its ear. While giving Kylo’s turn toward the dark side an interesting foundation in Luke’s own momentary dark turn, it only toys with the concept that he can actually be swayed. He, like Vader, eventually kills his evil-overlord boss (a moment that got a lot of applause in my theater), but he does so not out of a sense of decency and a healthy dose of moral fiber with his breakfast, but of ambition and hurt ego. Snoke played him and disrespected him, which pushed Kylo into killing him. Rey, in all her naïveté, thinks she can pull him over to the light merely by acknowledging that Luke fucked up, but she’s soon proven wrong. Sure, they make a good fighting team while cleaning up the guards in Snoke’s throne room, but Kylo is basically just using her as backup to save his own ass, not truly joining her in a fight against evil. That he immediately follows up their battle with a “Come be evil with me, please?” whine is evidence that he never changed at all–not even for a moment.
Given that the trolling started way before the movie was even released, a bunch of it is just generic anger that once again, the heroes are a diverse lot. But of the butthurt brigade who did watch it before commenting, I have to wonder whether this face-turn fake is part of what pissed them off. The one and only young white guy in this–the one they would have expected to identify with, because they don’t know how to identify with heroes unlike themselves–is not only a bad guy, but a petulant, obnoxious brat who can’t actually be redeemed, even with a woman being especially charitable toward him. His mama ultimately abandons him, too. That’s gotta sting.
While it’s easy to point and laugh or be angry with these guys, there’s an element of metaculture behind their rage that we have to look at–and it includes Star Wars.
One of the other themes of the movie is a handoff to the next generation. Luke’s monologue after Kylo fails to destroy his projection ties it up neatly: He is not the last Jedi. The Force, including the light side, exists outside of him. Being Force-sensitive isn’t a magic spell granted only to people within his genetic line. It’s something that anyone can be born with, and that anyone who is born with it can learn to master. In this understanding, it makes perfect sense that Leia would have been able to use the Force to save herself from an icy death in the vacuum of space (what, like she wouldn’t use 30+ years of being aware of her connection to the Force to get better at using it? C’mon.) It makes perfect sense that Rey, even without formal training, could be a skilled user of that power. Not sure if I believe Kylo’s reveal that her parents were nobodies, but even if so, it’s still plausible that she’d be Force sensitive even without being descended from a Jedi line.
Taking this theme to a meta level, it’s clear that this wasn’t just a handoff to the next generation of the Jedi (including the adorable boy at the end), and other heroes, it was also a handoff of the Star Wars mythos itself to a new generation. This whole new trilogy is undoubtedly a deliberate pander to Gen Xers who are cynically greeting middle age in a time of chaos: Call back to our childhoods while also giving us a way to pass these stories on to our own children. (That boy himself is a direct hit to the parental feels, lemme tell you.)
On a non-cynical level, this is kind of cool. Star Wars has become a new cultural monomyth, along the same lines as other stories that get passed down through generations and eventually become foundations of religion or cultural identity. We senior geeks tell our kids about Luke and Vader the same way others tell their kids about David and Goliath. And this story is now so pervasive that it crosses cultural and international boundaries. Star Wars is geek Esperanto.
The dark side (!) of this, however, is that most of this cultural saturation has been deliberate, in the form of marketing. It’s no surprise that this new trilogy is being driven by Disney, the masters of taking a well-loved story and turning it into billions in sales of toys and ephemera. I don’t at all hold myself above this. My whole office is a shrine to pop culture. Mostly LOTR, as that was my primary fandom for a long time, but also tons of other stuff, including SW and various superhero franchises. I’ve probably single-handedly funded a month’s pay for an employee at Funko. I’m not exactly a communist. I don’t necessarily grudge the money grab for its own sake. But what does bother me is how the marketing itself can subvert some of the messages the stories are trying to tell.
Nowhere is this more visible than with Vader and Stormtroopers getting slapped on everything. The first generation of Star Wars gear focused on the heroes: Every kid wanted to be Luke, Han, or Leia. Every kid loved the droids and Yoda. Sure, there were people who got hyped over the Empire, not to mention the cult of Boba Fett, but kids could reliably find good guys to play.
The prequel trilogy screwed that up. In telling us the backstory of the bad guy, they turned him into the good guy. When you make your villain the protagonist, you tell your audience that he’s someone they should identify with. That the villain in this case was a bratty little boy, and then an egotistical, trigger-happy, possessive teen and young man fed into those impulses among the story’s young audiences. Yeah, they tried to market Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, too, but the center of the story, especially for the adolescents and pre-teens who were the primary audience, was the person who eventually slaughtered children at the Jedi temple and blew up Alderaan. Yikes.
Fast-forward to 2015, and though the new trilogy once again has heroes to admire and emulate (yay!) there isn’t a young white guy. Because Disney’s merchandising wing has long been focused on market-segment separation, they didn’t know what to do with an army of kids suddenly wanting merch featuring someone other than a white dude. What will little boys want to buy? Well, they’re not going to want a girl, right? There are Finn and Poe, but since they’re not white, they surely can’t be marketed to boys as The Hero. Hm. I know! Let’s put Kylo Ren on everything! We marketed the bad guys with Vader and the Stormtroopers. We can do this new bad guy, too. We can sell to girls, too, but we have to make everything pink and sparkly, and Rey can’t be on any merch marketed to boys.
Exhibit A for stuff like this: I wanted to buy Star Wars socks for my kid at Target a few weeks back. The pack marketed to boys had Chewie, Yoda, and the droids, but also had Vader and a Stormtrooper. The pack that was all heroes, including Rey (but not Finn or Poe)? All pastels, and shelved with the girl-coded stuff. I bought the “girl” socks and my son loves them, but how many parents would do this? And how many other parents would just buy whatever Kylo or Vader stuff was in the “boy” aisle, and unwittingly give their sons the idea that murderous bad guys are heroes? If one of the major Resistance characters was a white guy, that’s probably who would be pasted on all of those T-shirts and dinner plates. Without him, marketing that’s targeted primarily at boys and isn’t just a logo, Chewie, or a droid has to go with the next best thing. The REAL next best thing, of course, is a woman, or a Black or Latino man, but you’re honestly just not going to see that. (Don’t believe me? Go to the boys’ clothing section of Amazon and search for “Star Wars.”) You get either old-school Luke or one of the bad guys.
There is a bit of rock-and-hard-place stuff going on here. The generation growing up now may finally be the one where white boys learn how to identify with heroes they don’t share vital statistics with simply because there’s so much more representation now. I dare say many white parents, like myself, are making a point of teaching an awareness of diversity and justice to our sons. But the generations before them never had to do that. Everything they watched or played with always had some white dude or other that they could use as an avatar. Marginalized people long ago learned how to use white dudes as avatars because we had so few other choices, but that’s a skill white boys never needed to learn. Now that they’re being nudged into that, it’s not surprising some are balking. Virtually the entire good-guy cast of the three most recent SW films is either female, a person of color, or from an older generation. Young white guys who want a hero like them can’t find one and therefore either get mad at supposedly being ignored, or go hang their hats on the white dudes they can find: AKA the villains.
This is, to be sure, a problem primarily of SW itself. There are legions of white-dude heroes in virtually all other SFF media. The guys who can’t wrap their heads around looking up to Finn or Rey still have tons of Marvel and DC characters to live through, to say nothing of all the other media out there. James T. Kirk is still a white guy, as are most of the main Harry Potter and LOTR characters. But given how much SW has permeated not just geek and SFF culture but metaculture itself, for young white guys to look for a good guy like them and not find one has to be more than a little disconcerting. I don’t exactly feel sorry for them, to be clear. Welcome to what everyone else has been putting up with for generations. Get over yourself and learn how to identify with female and PoC heroes, yeah? But this sense of being left out of a major narrative probably is a sticking point, and may explain some of the backlash.
There’s considerably more I want to say about the movie and about some of the broader plot themes (the subplot about arms dealing is, IMHO, being overlooked or dismissed as boring, and it shouldn’t be!) but I’ll hold off on that until after a second viewing. For now, however, I’ll just point to the film’s box office, which is only a tick behind TFA’s opening weekend, as proof that most of us have no problem liking heroes who aren’t white dudes. And if I do at all feel sorry for the people who do have this problem, it’s only because I think they’re missing out on something really fun. Their loss.